Friday, 29 July 2011

Mum's Top(ping) Tip: Fried Shallots, Garlic and Ginger

One of the things I told myself I must do when I flew back to Singapore in the summer, is learn my mum's kitchen secrets. She's not the best teacher though, because like all Asian cooks, nothing comes in measurements, and sauces and spices are just thrown into the wok with such casual flourish it's downright frustrating. I did what I could- stood beside her watching, asked her stupid questions, and sneaked around her cupboards tasting every condiment and pickle. I told her I wanted to start from the basics, and she quite impatiently pointed at the 3 bowls that she always keeps on standby beside the stove. Fried shallots, fried ginger, and fried garlic, and of course, the resulting byproduct-- fragrant flavour-infused oils.

(do more at once, you can use them on everything)
groundnut oil
pinch of sea salt

1. Peel shallots and slice thinly, and break apart into little rings by tossing with your fingers gently. Dab dry first, then toss with the salt, which helps them crisp up better. Do this at the last moment before you fry them or they might sweat.
2. Heat 2 inches of oil (I didn't give an amount because you'll use less if you're using a wok because of the round bottom) to medium, you should see really tiny bubbles. If it's too low, it'd be useless; if it's too high, the shallots will burn.

Beautiful glittering (golden, because of wrong camera settings) shallots

3. Add shallots to the heated oil. They should bubble mildly. You can then turn up the heat a little. Let cook about 8-9 min till the edges get a bit brown.
4. Ok now PAY ATTENTION. From this point onwards, you can go from beautiful golden crispy caramelised shallots to a burnt mess really easily. Once more than half of the shallots are golden, remove from heat and let them continue to sizzle in the residual heat of the oil until they are perfectly golden brown. If you wait until they are already golden brown before removing from the heat, they will end up burning.

Remove now now now.

This is called 'too late'.

5. Drain the fried shallots, they crisp up as they cool. DO NOT discard that fragrant flavourful oil. You can store the shallots in the oil too, but still drain and let cool or else the shallots will keep cooking in the hot oil.

I know it sounds like a lot of oil, but you are not eating all that oil! It's used sparingly as finishing drizzles like toasted sesame oil for that extra oomph. If you're stingy with the oil, you end up stewing the shallots and you end up with sticky (and in fact, oilier) caramelised shallots (which isn't such a bad thing because they still taste yummy but it's no longer the multi-purpose condiment you're after).

I speak humbly from personal experience, again.


It's the same method for fried garlic and fried ginger.

garlic, peeled, chopped roughly
groundnut oil
pinch of sea salt

Same as above, but garlic burns a lot quicker. Remove from heat once you smell that garlicky aroma. They are done right when they are golden, not brown! This is very good on top of vegetables, and extremely good on top of vegetables with oyster sauce.


groundnut oil
small amount of sesame oil (this combination of sesame oil and ginger is very popular in chinese confinement dishes. I've never had a baby but all the same, I'm in love with anything that uses these 2 together- the aroma is enough to make me hungry.)

Same as above, but my mum will smash the ginger first so they fall apart into fibrous threads, then go ahead to thinly slice/julienne them. They are done right when they are golden. This is especially good for anything fishy.


One of these three will usually be used to top simply cooked dishes, her final flourish to anything from stir-fries to soups to steamed to braised dishes to just plain rice congee, or she might use that fragrant oil as the finishing drizzle for an instant boost of deliciousness.

(Update: Now, I also always have three bowls sitting beside my stove.)

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Thai Glass Noodle Salad (YUM Woon Sen)

After all that spice, a cool refreshing salad is called for. I made som tum, a green papaya salad, at the cooking class, but thought to share this glass noodle salad instead, because the ingredients are a little less obscure and so, more re-creatable. I've done it slightly different from the Thai teacher, adjusted according to my own presumptuous interpretations of versions of this salad that I've had before and liked.

Thai Glass Noodle Salad (Yum Woon Sen)
serves 2
80g glass noodles (otherwise known as cellophane noodles, or mung bean threads)
3 shallots, thinly sliced
2-3 thai bird's eye chilli, chopped finely
handful of bean sprouts
1/2 a carrot, julienned
handful of Thai basil leaves/cilantro/ a mix (mint would be nice too)
1 tbsp dried shrimp

for dressing
1-2 tbsp fish sauce
1-2 tbsp unrefined cane/palm sugar
1-2 tbsp lime juice

1. Soak glass noodles in cold water for 5 min till soft. Now, let soak in boiling water for 1-2 min to cook it (I add the dried shrimps here too, so they soften a bit, and the noodles absorb a little of the seafood flavour). I also scald the vegetables so they don't taste that raw. Refresh all in cold water.
2. Meanwhile, combine ingredients for dressing. Adjust to taste! You might like it sweeter or tangier or saltier. I also like to add some of the shallots and chilli here to cut the sharpness and also flavour the dressing so the shallot-y spicy flavour can coat all the noodles better later.
3. Pour dressing over all the ingredients and toss.

This couldn't be simpler, but it definitely doesn't compromise on taste nor texture. You've got spicy, sweet, sour and salty, and the smooth slippery glass noodles against the fresh crunchy vegetables. And with the weather so hot (not just in Singapore. I've heard it's really hot in London too, and it's practically a heatwave in the US), whatever gives us all an excuse to not start the stove or oven is good. YUM woon sen (:

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Ultimate Guide to Thai Curries, and I-dare-you Jungle Curry

As I mentioned in my previous post, we went for a Thai cookery lesson in Chiang Mai. I learnt how to do the Thai favourites like pad thai (although I'm not really happy with the results. I'll share when I perfect it.) , tom yum soup, the thai desserts like mango/young coconut with sticky rice, the stir-fries, and of course, thai curries. Although we only learnt to make one each, I learnt that thai curries aren't really that different from one another. It works kind of like a mix and match. You start out with the same base, and based on the type of chillies or spices (or addition of coconut milk, later), end up with all the different Thai curry pastes. Brilliant.

I told you I'm a nerd when it comes to food, so I did a mind map/chart once I got home.

Legend: Red- red curry, Green- green curry, Yellow- yellow curry, Blue- phanang curry, Purple- Jungle curry, Orange- Masaman curry

And now that we can make all the Thai curries we want, why settle for the standard green or red? I went for Jungle Curry, the spiciest curry of them all. I love spicy, but you should see my face when the teacher told me to put in 20 thai chilli padis (birds' eye chillies), which was in addition to handfuls of dried red chillies and chilli paste. Apparently, the Thais would use 60.

Thai Jungle Curry (Kaeng Pa)
serves 2
For curry paste (makes about 2 tbsp)
20 fresh Thai birds' eye chillies (red or green), chopped
5 dried red big chillies (not that spicy), boiled first then chopped
5 dried red chillies (spicy kind), chopped
3-4 shallots, chopped
5-6 cloves garlic (just smash and leave skin on if using the small Asian kinds, but peel if using the big western kinds.)
1 tbsp chopped galangal
1 lemongrass, pale bottom part only, chopped
1/2 tbsp fermented shrimp paste (kind of like belachan)
1 tsp chopped kaffir lime peel
1 coriander root (or substitute with twice the amount of coriander stems)
1 tsp fresh turmeric (or substitute with dried)
1 Thai ginseng (I don't know how you can substitute this, so just leave it out if you've got no choice)

For making curry
1 stalk of kaffir lime leaves (it comes in doubles), sliced very thinly
2 tbsp fish sauce
2-2 tsp sugar (unrefined cane sugar)
1 stalk fresh green peppercorns
300g chicken, sliced (originally wild boar. use whatever meat you like, or you can even make it vegetarian)
2 handfuls of vegetables (we had a mixture of Thai eggplants, pea eggplants, carrots and long beans, but use whatever you like)
handful of Thai holy basil leaves
1 big red chilli (non spicy. it's just for extra colour), deseeded and chopped
2 tbsp oil (unrefined palm or coconut oil)

Proud of my chopping and pounding skills

1. Pound (or blend) all the ingredients for the curry paste. We pounded.

The teacher said a Thai man will look at how well a woman pounds her curry paste to decide if she's wife material. I think I'll give a Thai husband a miss.

2. Add the oil to a wok or pot, and add the curry paste. Fry over low heat till you can smell the aroma (or in the case of the jungle curry, the smell of all that chilli hits your nostrils and you start choking).
3. Add some water to stop burning, then the chicken, keep stirring till cooked.
4. Increase the heat, and add the vegetables, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and sugar bring to a boil and then let it simmer until everything is cooked. You may want to add water/reduce the curry till you reach your desired consistency.

5. Finish off with the basil leaves and red chilli.

Like all Thai cuisine, this is a perfect balance of sweet, spicy, sour and salty, although I would say this tips towards the spicy just that tiny bit more. Even though I was sweating buckets, I really loved the complexity of flavours and this was definitely very more-ish. Note though: This is one strong curry. You need to have this with rice (and lots of tissue paper at the side.)

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Land of a Thousand Smiles and two Thousand Chillies (Chiang Mai)

Follow the elephants.
The natives (or at least the native elephant trainers) say so.

They're intriguing-looking creatures aren't they? Giant bodies, huge ears, snake-like noses, wrinkled skin and bristly hairs , but those kind knowing eyes! They remind me of the wise old women of a tribe. I've heard stories of the elephants fleeing from the deadly tsunami before it struck Asia in 2004. They're so clever that way, a sort of instinctive knowledge. I like to think it's because they're in tune with nature, so they know about the land that they live on. That was something I saw a lot of in the Thai people.

I went to Chiangmai, away from the more bustling Bangkok city. There, the places are still pretty undeveloped and makor parts of the land are still being used for farming or taken up by indigenous villages. It was a beautiful trip- we went off the beaten track, one day on rented ATVs and another on foot, through the jungles, villages, and farms. There was a simple kind of peace and quiet in the air, but of course, disturbed sometimes by the mosquitoes and sudden bursts of tropical rain.

Sacrificing safety for photos of the beautiful village scenery

I know for sure the eggs were free-range and pastured!

The Thais in this part of Thailand lead very simple lives, working hard, but just enough, not the same way people in big cities slave 18h a day in the office, and they're such happy people! I am think that that's the way we should be approaching life and health and all that-- just enjoying whatever we're offered. Gosh I sound old. But really, just in terms of food, the Thais really live off the land. You wouldn't find strawberries or even apples anywhere on the menu, because it wasn't available, simple as that. What they did have was lots of watermelon, pineapples, papaya, dragonfruit, jackfruit, rambutans, coconut of course... (some of these probably sound really exotic and foreign, but growing up in Singapore, they're familiar friends. I should do a post just on tropical fruits one day.)

Watermelon and pineapple, served at the end of almost all our meals

I've seen lychees before, but never ones SO BIG.

Back to the food. Thai cuisine is definitely NOT lacking in variety, flavour and colour despite being very very local and seasonal, in fact, it's quite the opposite. I'm sure everyone is familiar with the pad thai,

This was the best pad thai I've ever eaten,

cost maybe 30 pence, and took less than 30s to cook.
TIP: Unlike in London, the best food you can have in most of Southeast Asia are usually from street vendors or small coffeeshops.

som tum (shredded green papaya salad),

green and red curries,

This curry was stewed inside a coconut

But there are also some dishes specific to the Northern Thai region which are lesser known but really ought to be better known, like the sai oua, a grilled pork sausage mixed with Thai spices and herbs,

mu yor, a steamed pork sausage that has an irresistible bouncy texture,

These are meatballs, made with that same bouncy pork mixture.

khao soi, fried crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots and lime in a soup/curry-like coconut sauce

khaeng hang -le, a stewed pork curry which unlike more common Thai curries, uses no coconut milk, but tamarind juice, peanuts and chillies instead

kaep mu, deep fried crispy pork rinds (think crackling. then think, mountain of crackling.),

which is often served with nam prik num, a fresh, slightly tangy and salty green chilli paste.

It's also served just as a dip for vegetables (new alternative to satay peanut sauce?)

The most intriguing dish I had though, was on the last day, when we decided to shelve out in a northern thai restaurant recommended by the locals (but honestly, it was still nowhere near expensive. We paid about 7 singdollars/ 3.5 british pounds for a very generous and very good meal. It really is a poor foodie's heaven in Chiangmai.) This was a whole fish, deboned, stuffed with pork, and fried. The fish skin was crispy and the filling, succulent and juicy, and everything went perfectly with the sweet-sour chilli dip. It was even laid on an edible taro basket. I can honestly say, "It was so good I ate the whole dish up."

If you used to think Thai food is all about the chillies, well-- it still is (I think I ate more chillies in that 5 day trip than I did in the past year), but it's really a lot more than that. There's spice, but there's also a wonderful balance of flavours and textures and smells and more. Most importantly, it's about fresh ingredients from the land, cooked from scratch. Speaking of cooking, we also went for a Thai cooking lesson taught by the locals, but I'll save the tips I picked up for another post, I've been going on for too long. korp-khun-khrap (:

Sunday, 3 July 2011

"Tut-tut-Satay!" Singapore Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce

The past few days in Singapore, I've been bombarded by Chinese soups (lovingly slow-cooked by mummy dearest over a charcoal stove), Malay spices and stews, Indian curries. And I just couldn't decide what to share first. And then today, I heard the familiar "Tut-tut-Satay!" The Satay Man!

Satay, delicious skewers of spice-marinated meat, are really popular in Singapore, found in hawker centres, in pasar malams (night markets), and for some fortunate neighbourhoods like mine, on "mobile" barbecue grills. These two Malay uncles have been touting their wares on a motorbike attached to their mini mobile kitchens, along the street where I stay, every Sundayever since I was ten. My sisters and I would excitedly run out to get twenty to thirty sticks, which comes with a generous bowl of peanut sauce, pressed rice cakes, cucumber and onions.

Actually, I'm sure most people know what satay is. Satay must be the first thing that comes to the minds of non-locals when you mention Southeast Asian cuisine. There are many countries with their own version of satay, but the Singapore satay that I grew up with trumps all the Thai, Filipino or Indonesian versions. It's also one of the many things I miss when I'm in London. So I decided to treat myself one day to satay, using my oven grill function which, to be honest, cannot properly replace the smoky charcoal aroma and beautiful char that the direct charcoal flames give. But, well, I was desperate, and really, it turned out (not perfect I know, but) delicious! I didn't want to post it until I got a photo of satay done right, and now I do.

Singapore Chicken Satay
makes 20 normal skewers or 15 jumbo ones
500g chicken, boneless and skinless, chopped into bite-sized pieces
10 shallots
2 cloves garlic
4 stalks lemongrass, white part only, bruised
2 slices galangal (you can kind of substitute with ginger, but it's quite a different flavour. It's becoming quite easy to find in big supermarkets now, or you can check Asian stores)
2 tbsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp sea salt
8 tbsp unrefined cane sugar
1 tbsp kecap manis, a thick dark soy sauce (I use 1 tsp traditionally brewed soy sauce+ 1 tsp molasses)
3-4 tbsp groundnut oil

1. Pound (at home, my mum still dutifully pounds spices and onions in a mortar and pestle to make curry paste) or blend the shallots, garlic, lemongrass and galangal, before mixing in the rest of the ingredients, adding quite a bit of oil to get a paste.

2. Marinate the chicken in the paste overnight, or even for 24 h.

3. Thread the chicken pieces on wooden skewers. Mine was abnormally generous thick cubes of chicken, it's usually skinnier. (Tip: soak the skewers for a few hours beforehand to prevent them burning later).

4. Turn the oven grill setting on high. Grill for about 5 minutes per side, till cooked and slightly charred, generously basting with some oil as and when.

Just as important, if not more important than the satay itself, is the peanut sauce. The perfect peanut sauce is thick and aromatic with freshly roasted peanuts and is a perfect balance of spices and sweet-saltiness. Unlike Thai peanut satay sauce, which uses coconut milk, this peanut sauce has a slightly different taste profile because of the use of the tart-sweet tamarind juice.

Singapore Satay Peanut Sauce
(credits to kitchen tigress for her brilliant research into getting that perfect consistency and golden hue in the peanut sauce)
makes 1 cup
250g toasted peanuts, skinless
1 tbsp tamarind (assam) pulp, mashed with 1/2 cup of warm water
4 shallots
2 cloves garlic
1 stalk lemongrass, white part only
2 slices galangal
3-4 dried red chillies
3 tbsp groundnut oil 
4 tbsp unrefined sugar (palm sugar aka gula melaka is great. Its unique sweet taste is popular in Singaporean cooking. It will give a much darker sauce though.)
1 tsp naturally brewed soy sauce

plus the leftover marinade from the chicken

1. Roughly chop half the peanuts, and finely grind the other half (this helps to thicken the sauce). Boil them in the assam water, simmering for about 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, blend the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal and chilli. Fry with the leftover satay marinade in the oil till fragrant.
3. Add the fried spice paste to the peanuts to simmer for another 15 min.

4. Add the seasonings, and reduce by boiling/ add water as needed.

Please make extra sauce! It's so delicious and you can use it for dips, dressings, sauce, with vegetables, with meat, with noodles, for stir-fries etc. (e.g. Seafood satay beehoon, another Singapore hawker favourite)

The chicken satay, after being marinated for so long in that wonderful mixture of spices and seasoning, is fragrant, juicy and succulent. The satay peanut sauce satisfies my senses on all levels-- smell-wise, aromatic with freshly-roasted peanuts; taste-wise, it's sweet, spice-y, and just a very little bit sour and salty at the same time; and texture-wise, it's thick and creamy yet chunky. You need the fresh cucumber and diced red onions (and if I had my way, rice cakes called ketupat) to cut through all that richness, and of course to dip in excess peanut sauce. I know it's not there yet, but I was really pleased with myself then. Now, though, after seeing the Malay satay uncles doing their thing, I'm just embarassed..